December 07

Festival of Cant: The “Israel Lobby” and Abraham Foxman

Gordon Haber


The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy
John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control
Abraham H. Foxman
Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Last year The London Review of Books published the now-notorious article, “The Israel Lobby,” in which two liberal American foreign policy experts—John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard—contend that it is time to reassess America’s “extraordinary generosity” in supporting Israel. Yet such a reassessment is almost impossible, they argue, because the Israel lobby—“a loose coalition of individuals and organizations”—slanders anyone who disagrees with its agenda as an anti-Semite or self-hating Jew.

Not surprisingly, the article generated a lot of noise, which has grown even louder now that Mearsheimer and Walt have expanded their discussion into a book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy Proponents of the “special relationship” between America and Israel have responded with their own books—Abraham Foxman’s The Deadliest Lies among them—which, one presumes, will inspire even more books in the unending cycle of shrieking opinion that is often mistaken for political discourse.

Perhaps this is unfair. Everyone has a right to voice an opinion, and neither book is as obnoxious as anything that has been written by Ann Coulter. Then again, neither book is particularly subtle or well-argued. In fact, they share a disingenuousness that often spills over into intellectual dishonesty.

Let’s start with M and W, who wish to refute what they see as the four baseless moral arguments for American support for Israel. First, the authors claim that despite what the neo-cons say, Israel is not the underdog in the Middle East—that it is, in fact, militarily and economically dominant. Second, they claim that it is hypocritical to speak of shared democratic values, since “Israel’s 1.36 million Arabs are de facto treated as second-class citizens.” Third, they claim that one cannot back a Jewish state as a “compensation for past crimes” like the Holocaust when one considers what a disaster this has been for the Palestinians. And fourth, they claim one cannot argue that Israel’s conduct has been more virtuous than its enemies, especially since Israel “has continued to impose terrible violence and destruction on the Palestinians for decades.”

I don’t take issue with these four points. Instead, my problem is with the authors’ obsessive focus on Israeli perfidy. Mearsheimer and Walt’s arguments rely on separating Israeli actions from any kind of historical or political context—to the point, for example, where every military action between Israel and its neighbors is consistently portrayed as having been initiated by Israel, without prompting or provocation. While Israel is far from the utopian dream sold to Americans in the golden era of the kibbutzim, neither is that country solely liable for the situation it is in—to put it mildly, Israel’s neighbors have played no small role in creating the current mess.

Mearsheimer and Walt assert that they wish “to foster a more clear-eyed and candid discussion” of the United States’ relationship with Israel. Fair enough. I’m willing to entertain the idea that American—and especially Jewish-American—perceptions of Israel are reliant on myth. And that Israel “sometimes does not act like a loyal ally” to the United States. But the assumption that Israel always acts treacherously does not strike me as correct either. Similarly, while it is fair to say that “It is difficult to talk about the lobby’s influence on American foreign policy…without being accused of anti-Semitism,” what are we to make of Mearsheimer and Walt’s list of the twenty or so “prominent neoconservatives” who pushed for the invasion of Iraq—a list that reads like a game of cherchez les juifs?

Well, Abraham Foxman believes that this list is evidence that Mearsheimer and Walt are promulgating “conspiracy theories about Jews.” In fact, in The Deadliest Lies, Foxman argues that The Israel Lobby is only one example of the resurgence of anti-Semitic myths. At least, that’s what I think he’s arguing. With a headache-inducing reliance on pat phrases and pat ideas, Foxman conflates a number of recent episodes that relate to Israel, American Jewry, and the Anti-Defamation League, which makes it extraordinarily difficult to locate a thesis. Other than, you know, that anti-Semitism is bad.

But in the interest of fairness, let’s take a look at one of Foxman’s arguments: his response to The Israel Lobby’s assertion that Israel is undemocratic. Foxman (of course) insists that Israel is a democracy, “a nation much like any other, with its problems, its opportunities, its virtues, and, at times, its failings and shortcomings.” Sure, he says, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians leaves much to be desired. But who is perfect? Is England? Is France? And “don’t get [him] started” on Saudi Arabia and Egypt! So why would we try to make Israel into a “pariah state”?

Mearsheimer and Walt never suggest that Israel should be treated like a pariah. In fact, they believe that the U.S. should help Israel in the face of any serious threat. In short, they believe Israel should be considered a strategic ally among other allies—just one state among many in an important region. That suggestion, while anathema to the Israel lobby, is certainly more evenhanded than Foxman’s, who barely addresses Israel’s treatment of its non-Jewish minority. Instead, Foxman lapses into tautology: “the people of the Book” hold themselves to a “higher moral standard,” but others shouldn’t. Especially because (can you guess what’s coming?) it could lead to anti-Semitism.

Reading these books reminded me of another controversy that’s recently returned to the fore: the video of the killing of Mohammed Al-Dura, the 12-year-old Palestinian boy who died in the middle of an Israel-Palestinian firefight in Gaza at the very beginning of the Al-Aksa Intifada in September, 2000. Depending upon their politics, some claimed that the video was Palestinian propaganda, others that it was proof of Israeli brutality. Recently, a French judge has decided to review the tapes to puzzle out what really happened. Each side seems to believe that if the judge finds the other responsible, their struggle, indeed their whole worldview, will be vindicated.

Meanwhile, the boy is still dead.



Gordon Haber is the Book Reviews Editor for Zeek.