Five years ago yesterday, a friend sent me the link to the Walt and Mearsheimer piece on The Israel Lobby, and I sat at my computer with my mouth open. A seal had been broken, and I believed that it was high noon for the Israel lobby. As it turns out it was 2 in the morning, but let’s not quibble. A seal had been broken, and I thought that no longer would Chris Matthews get to act dumb about why American officials took such a different view from European officials of Saddam Hussein's threat. Well, this was why, and we all knew it.
Looking back, I can't escape the importance of the authors’ prestige. It made a big difference; these were Establishment players and there was a feeling around the paper that they had laid their careers on the line and all the perquisites too. Steve Walt was a Harvard dean with a future in a Democratic administration. Now he was about to be labeled an anti-Semite by the jealous guardians of power. I called him that day and left a message on his office machine, thanking him. Over the days and weeks to come, big guns had to be wheeled out to take the authors on, and in the fervor of the denial, by one Jewish writer after another, you could see a confirmation of the authors' thesis.
That is one thing I loved about the piece: it described my own experience in the media. The authors weren't journalists, but now they were getting a taste of that orthodoxy for themselves, from the time that the Atlantic killed the piece and they had had to go to the London Review of Books to publish it.
Today I still feel enormous gratitude. The Israel Lobby was a costly thing to write. The smearing never stopped, I imagine it surprised even the authors. A few months later they appeared on a panel at the Naval War College in Rhode Island with a fellow realist, a Jew named Robert J. Art. The subject of the talk wasn’t the Israel lobby but it was a generous act on Art’s part to share the stage. People were making million-dollar threats to Harvard over the paper, or at least Marty Peretz was, and the rabbi who headed the Harvard Hillel threatened them in the Nation. The New York Sun and the Washington Post and the Yivo Institute were smearing the authors. It was great to see Jews stand up for them-- Uri Avnery in Israel, too.
Speaking personally, their paper was a doorway on an intellectual path and more than that, my literary material. So many of the issues I am most deeply interested in in life, power, access, Jewish identity, the Iraq war, the relationship of neoconservatism to Zionism in my parents’ New York Jewish generation, the meritocracy in my generation, the media, had been barred to me; editors had said these were trivial topics, or anyway they were not to be examined through a Jewish lens. Walt and Mearsheimer made clear that these were great subjects. Thus these political scientists gave me permission. I dedicated a lot of the first year of this blog to supporting them. James North told me that Darwin had had a bulldog in the London newspapers, and you are their bulldog. I was happy to play the part, I was so grateful to be able to speak about the things I thought about.
I wasn’t in full agreement with them. They were precise academics who had spent time in Israel. (Mearsheimer is a former air force captain and admired Israeli pilots.) They talked about the Israel lobby and did not use the words Julian Schnabel does, or Zbig Brzezinski, the Jewish lobby. No that was sloppy thinking to them; and so they steered clear of the issue of messianism in the Jewish community. That became central to me. I wanted to learn about the rise of Zionism in Jewish life, and the collectivized spirit of Jews on behalf of other Jews, the willingness of Jewish bankers to use their bond-writing power to free my ancestors from Russia at the turn of the last century (thank you lobby!) and a few years later, Herzl’s offer to the Sultan to relieve the Turkish debt and work on the Armenian persecution p.r. problem for the Turks in Europe in exchange for Palestine. And so the Israel lobby lit up for me the special role of Jews in western life, a role I am largely proud of but one that it was intellectual idiocy to pretend was not a signal factor in Middle East policy making.
What was the effect of the paper broadly? Was it right? And what of the leftwing’s criticism?
For a while the paper was only read in brown paper covers, but everyone read it. It opened up a whole new field of consideration if not expression. Scott McConnell wrote about that effect here yesterday. I expected the big newspapers to begin to do investigative pieces on the paper; that didn’t happen (Michael Massing was the sparkling exception, in the NY Review of Books). Still the blogosphere responded. I know countless editors and reporters and officials who studied the paper if they could not speak openly about it. It affected their thinking. It opened things up, it is still having an effect. The authors published a book, The Israel Lobby, a year after the paper, in 2007, and I compared it to Silent Spring, Unsafe at Any Speed, and the Jungle. These comparisons seem righter than ever, the effect of their muckraking was that large. I have no doubt that Obama has read the paper and understood it as a roadmap to reality, and Rand Paul too.
Of course they were right. In the Security Council settlements veto of three weeks ago, even Mitchell Plitnick, a doubter, saw the lobby at work. Obama is nakedly worried about 2012, that’s conservative Jewish power. The whole world is against this project, and a progressive Democrat goes along with the religious right in Israel because of collectivized Jewish political power. For my part I have written that the denial of a Palestinian state, when everyone and his brother have gotten their states, is an American Jewish achievement. (And so, in its time, will be the loss of the Jewish state: the lobby was never simply satisfied with the 67 line.) It’s hardly a coincidence that of the six Americans on stage at the Cooper Union debate of the paper in September 2006, three who argued against the thesis or doubted it (Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk and Anne-Marie Slaughter) all have served in government or would again. The three who were against it never did, including Rashid Khalidi, an Obama friend who was smeared during the 2008 campaign.
As for the left, well, Walt and Mearsheimer’s analysis had a strong moral component-- they said that the occupation went against human-rights values, and they hammered away at Palestinian suffering-- and this made it easier for many on the left to acknowledge the wisdom of their theory. It is a measure of their political creativity, and also of their excommunication by the mainstream liberals who should have championed them, that in May Walt and Mearsheimer will be featured speakers (along with Alice Walker, Laila El-Haddad, Ralph Nader, and Rebecca Vilkomerson) at an anti-AIPAC convention in Washington.
Of course some on the left disparaged the Israel lobby theory and will never be convinced by it. These are chiefly materialists who say that corporate interests direct Amercan foreign policy; and that if Israel wasn’t serving the military industrial complex it would have been dumped years ago. I never found this critique persuasive. For one thing there was little evident material interest in the Iraq war, not when oil concessions are going to Chinese and Russian companies. And material interests never ruled my life, nor Noam Chomsky’s life, nor Gary Bauer’s, nor Bill Kristol’s either. Material interests didn’t push the religious right that turned out to support George Bush in ’00 or ’04. No-- religion, fear, devotion, tribal loyalty always seemed to me to be stronger passions than the pursuit of the holy buck; and when people in my extended family asked, Is it good for the Jews? they weren't talking about money. In that sense the Walt and Mearsheimer thesis was romantic. In taking on the special relationship, they were writing about love.