I worried that I would not get into the Yale debate with John
Mearsheimer last night because it would be so crowded by hostile faction and faculty, but this was not a worry.
A great hall with coffered ceiling teemed with students. Mearsheimer and I were the only adults there. No Arab legions, and I didn’t see the Israeli mob either. I had walked in on a
formal debating society. Some of the kids walked around in suits and bowties.
Before it got going Will Wilson and his friend Nicola Karras of the Party of the Right came over to introduce
is burly and looks like a wildhaired Irish orator. He wore a 1776 tie and had read my
work in the American Conservative. Nicola was smaller, quieter, hair pulled back. Will was to be one of the speakers. I thought, Maybe she is Will’s acolyte.
It was the first Yale Political Union meeting of the year
and the first hour was taken up with the chairmen of the various political
groups introducing themselves from the stage and appealing to the freshmen to
join them. I had never been inside such a formal society before, with so many mannerisms. No one clapped, they
drummed deskboards and books. No one booed; they hissed. The chairmen gave
theatrical speeches. “The left is broken!” “Resolved, that happiness is a noble
lie.” “Liberalism is the plague of modernity.” The skinny Tory in a bowtie and three piece suit said it was an
open question when America ’s
values were ruined. Was it the 60s? Was it the 16th amendment? Was
it the eighteenth? He held up a card saying Prohibition. Or did it go back
further. To 1776. The president of the society said, “Clarence Thomas had a single
conversation with John Bolton at Yale that changed his entire life." So: imagine the
impact you can have here.
I felt overawed. I remembered that Yale is the
most intellectual of the Ivies, the kids aren’t hustlers the way that Harvard
kids are, are not as urbane as Columbia
students, they’re just smarter. And yet the mannerism was so odd my jaw
dropped. I could see Mearsheimer chuckling on stage. This is the way they had behaved for centuries. I thought of the time 4
years ago when I came out of the bush in New Guinea with a Tolai guide and into
a village where they were having an all-night fire dance wearing strange bird
costumes in a field and I was the only white person within miles. I was privileged that night. Well, now the privilege was mine
At last it was Mearsheimer's turn. He was welcomed with huge applause. I’ve seen him speak several times,
this was his best performance. He is now completely comfortable as a public
intellectual. He’s got the scars to prove it. He relishes the battle. And the
Political Union had done a lot of his work for him, by framing the question, Should “the special
relationship” end? So the special relationship was not in question. The
actual effects of the Israel
lobby were not in doubt, though you could argue about why the relationship was
Mearsheimer's speech was a blistering attack on the idea of
unconditional support of Israel ’s
behavior. All countries do "boneheaded" things. But in Israel's case, our unconditional support for boneheaded policies had destroyed the American ability to move freely in the Middle East and had deprived Israel of the checks and balances that a "normal" relationship with a superpower would entail when it
pursues foolish policies. Mearsheimer spoke of two boneheaded policies: the brutal treatment of the
Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and the disastrous decision by Israel to invade Lebanon in ’06, in which it achieved
none of its objectives, and which it subsequently anatomized in a report by a scathing commission. The errors were evident ahead of time; but no, the U.S. was joined at the
hip to Israel
and could not pull it back, even as it pursued a misguided strategy of punishing the
Lebanese by forcing hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes in fright.
The room hissed repeatedly, attacking Israel more
than Mearsheimer. Now and then it hissed his coldblooded realism. He expressed
admiration for the Israeli war machine, which he put on a par with the German
one of the last century, and marveled at the intelligence of the Israeli
He left no doubt that the 9/11 hijackers had been motivated in good
part by anger over our policy toward the Palestinians. And he said that of
course ending the I/P issue would not end our terrorism problem, or Israel ’s,
but it was crucial. "The US
is in deep trouble in the Middle East and has
a serious terrorism problem.. in good part because of its special
relationship…. Israel is
turning itself into an apartheid state and all you in the audience who care
deeply about Israel
should be horrified by this.” Who can argue with this stuff?
The most hellacious part of his book–neocons pushed the Iraq war for Israel–was not part of the argument. And meantime he extended the book's argument in a
creative way. Because of relentless expansion that seems to be part of Zionism, Israel had all but foreclosed the
possibility of a two-state solution. This would leave three choices in Greater
Israel: a binational state that would give Arabs and Jews equal rights and would
mean abandoning the original Zionist vision of the state; 2, ethnic cleansing to
maintain a Jewish majority, or 3, most likely, some form of apartheid with
limited autonomy for Palestinians, living in “statelets.” Everyone bridles at the
word apartheid, Mearsheimer said. “But that is the future they face…. No one who wishes Israel well should be enthusiastic about” these
And he noted: the kind of
discrimination which is “part of Israel’s essence” is “antithetical”
to American values.
The questions began. The Tory
in the bowtie asked whether Israel's
treatment of its “gentiles” was so unusual. Mearsheimer said its nativist policies were similar to Japan’s and Germany’s, two other liberal
democracies. Not the U.S.
Then Michael Pomeranz made the first rebuttal speech. He was
a small mopheaded kid with glasses and a khaki suit. I thought it was a very good speech because he put out the old
neoconservative hogwash in a fresh bottle, as if he had truly considered the ideas himself not
had them regurgitated directly into his
esophagus by someone named Kagan Kristol or Kaplan. Yes Israel
is special. And so is Ireland,
Poland, Australia. Stability in the region
depends on Israel’s qualitative advantage over highly militarized
fascistic dictatorships next door, where women can be killed if their honor is defiled
and gay rights is a null option. We went to war in World War II to
preserve liberal values. If we cease to extend aid, we invite Israel ’s
neighbors to destroy her.
He ended on a thunderous neoDemo note. We must
stand for liberal democracy. The people in this room must not be the ones to
abandon it. “Think of the moral
moments of the 20th century," he said stirringly. I heard the names: Rwanda. Selma.
I’m an emotional person, I’m not a good debater. But as Pomeranz finished I reflected that everyone had served in WW2 and wondered what he or anyone else in the room would be willing to die for. I would have
gone to Selma to stop the segregationists, and Afghanistan to get OBL. But Selma now? Ramallah.
The isolationist view was expressed by Will Wilson. I had
thought he was idiosyncratic when I met him and Nicola, two more of the nut jobs that I always meet on the margins of intellectual discourse, which is where I graze. But I'd forgotten, he was a gleaming Yale student. My imagining him idiosyncratic
quickly vanished. He was the most stumpy of the speakers, impassioned and
personal. He began by saying that he was angry. Angry that to speak that night, he had to go to the leftwing floor manager. Angry that when watching the Democratic convention he had seen people waving Israeli flags at it. What other flags could be waved without
drawing a storm of media protest? None. There would be a hue and cry so loud "I
could have heard it from the moon."
for Mr Pomeranz who claims the Israel
lobby is no different from other interest groups, "I don’t know what universe those people
are living in.” What other lobby brags about its ability to destroy the careers of congressmen?
The lobby regularly smears people who dare to stand up to its power. They have
slandered Mearsheimer repeatedly. Philip Weiss is in the hall tonight, he has been smeared as an anti-Semite. My great grandfather was a rabbi, Wilson said, but I
don’t use that against anyone, while Abe Foxman dares to trivialize the deaths of
6 million people by using their deaths as a brush to tar his opponents.
"This–ladies and gentlemen is an American passport. I keep it
in my pocket in case I have to make a quick getaway.” He read out some of the
language about not serving in the military of another country. “There is a reason that it
is in here… Different countries have different interests.” Why should Americans take sides in a "sordid and nasty little war" in Israel and Palestine. He threw down his hands. "If there is a clear right and a clear wrong, I don't know."
Thrilling. Though I saw my own values more in Joyce Arnold, a British girl with blonde hair in a black dress who
spoke from my stance, as an internationalist, progressive. She had nothing to add to what
Mearsheimer had said about the lives of Palestinians. He had done a “fabulous” job. “America has the least sensible conversation" about this in the world. If you want to know what is happening
there, “read Haaretz, not the New York Times.” We have lost our position as honest
broker. We cannot promote American values because of our close ties to Israel. Why, Israel’s nukes and our silent complicity had rendered it
imposible for the U.S. to
take a stand against India and Pakistan getting nukes. I never
thought about that before!
A questioner asked Arnold
if the US
should not be promoting liberal democracy to other states. “My views are still
being formed,” she said openly. “I might well believe that.” She doesn’t yet.
Hisses and thunder.
The vote was taken. It was nearly 10:30 and only the most serious were still here. There had been no Jewish demonstration
all night long. When Justin Raimondo came to Yale a few years back to say
similar things, there was an uproar. Stuff had been thrown at him, Wilson told me. The atmosphere has
changed. When the affirmatives were asked to raise their hands, a religious
Jew in a beard, tsitsis and a yarmulke, with a sardonic smile on his
face walked up the aisle toward the neocon backbenches and held out two fists at his side, in a
way that seemed a cross between crucifixion and Tommie Smith's clenched fist at the Mexico Olympics. Martyrish. They
knew they were going down. 44-25.
We all went out for pizza. Again, I was overawed. Joyce Arnold corrected Will Wilson on the language
from the passport, saying that one must have the intention of relinquishing U.S. citizenship, just serving in another
country’s army was not necessarily wrong. They got out a flashlight
to look at his passport in the street. A pretty English girl called Kate sighed
that she would not take Harold Bloom’s class this year, then battened onto Wilson on the issue of
divided loyalty. “In Sophocles the root of all tragedy is divided loyalties.
Conflicting loyalty between family and self… So which would you choose…” Wilson argued back. I am sure I am getting that
wrong. It was over my head.
If the theme of this article is lost on you, I should state it baldly. These kids are the smartest kids in the world, and they are not interested in identity politics. When Mearsheimer went on about Lebanon and Suez, they knew what he meant. When Tory held up the 16th Amendment, they knew what he was talking about. Serious people with not an ounce of street smarts, forming their world
views in a privileged, idealist petri dish, they have little doubt about this question–44-25. Though Nicola said that, had the vote been taken on the
entire campus, Mearsheimer would have been defeated. Then the highminded debate
would surely have devolved into the usual religious battle that happens on other campuses. The streetsmart would have entered the discussion. The Jewish establishment is obviously a factor at Yale. The president is Richard Levin and the Architectural dean is Robert A.M. Stern, and Juan Cole was blackballed from coming 2 years ago because he is heterodox, and today the Daily News features the usual angry attack on Mearsheimer.
The geniuses had milkshakes, I had a beer. Mearsheimer was
at the biggest table. I was with the Party of the Right. Nicola told about being at a bar mitzvah when she bragged about Mearsheimer coming to Yale, and an older man started berating her from across the table about
being an anti-Semite. There she was in a hot pink yarmulke, a Jew, and this man
was accusing her of being an anti-semite. Nicola laughed. She could care less about identity politics.
Nicola, who I had regarded, foolishly, as an acolyte, had
had the best line of the evening. There had been one funny speech. Matt Lee of the Progressive Party had chosen to mock the U.S.
for being a Jewish mother to Israel,
and Israel for being the princeling child– upsetting the mother by coming home with China.
When the questions came for Lee, someone stood up to ask if Israel
could “marry a goyische country.” Lee looked around mystified. “I don’t
even know what that word means.” Nicola stood up to clarify things. “Shiksa countries are for
practice.” It was a neat play on a dirty old line. Marry a Jew– shiksas are for practice. The neocon backbenchers roared.