Columbia Dean Lemann Said He Would Debate Walt and Mearsheimer. Let’s Do It!

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Last November,Yivo, the Jewish institute in New York, staged a panel on Walt and Mearsheimer’s book, The Israel Lobby, titled "A Critical Response." I bought a ticket. But I was ill that day, and couldn’t make it.

Later, two partisans of the book sent me emails about the event. Rob Buchanan, writer and New School journalism prof, went with his class (in fact the New School coverage by Hannah Rappleye is the only story I could find) and sent me the following report:

“After Marty Peretz introduced the panelists and said we were in for a ‘frightening’ evening… Jeffrey Goldberg stood up and said, ‘I’m going to tell you that this book is anti-semitic, and he (Daniel Goldhagen) is going to tell you that it’s really, really anti-semitic.’ That got a good laugh, and it was kind of typical of the whole evening—lots of winks and inside jokes about how we (all of us in the room) were basically in agreement on the book and whole idea that ‘lobby’ was just another way of saying ‘cabal.’ Of the two speakers, Goldberg was by far the more interesting and entertaining; he’s funny and urbane and totally confident… Also made some reasonable sounding noises—that settlement project was a terrible mistake, that a book needed to be written (this one just wasn’t it), that college kids in the U.S. were becoming ‘hostile to the narrative’ of the creation of Israel as bold pioneers carving a nation out of the wilderness. Goldhagen was less impressive, going on about the ‘smell’ of the book being not right but not producing anything in the way of evidence or real argument…. But the guy who really bummed me out was Nick Lemann, who complained that he had interviewed Mearsheimer in 2002 about his ideas for a ‘realist’ foreign policy, and made him into a star by writing about him in the New Yorker, and that the guy hadn’t said a word about Israel at the time. Emboldened by this conferring of legitimacy, Mearsheimer and his sidekick Walt (a nobody administrator) had subsequently betrayed him (Lemann) with this foray into anti-semitism. That was the prologue to his ‘moderating’ of the discussion; he tried (after apologizing) to ask a few challenging questions, but gave up after about 30 seconds and gleefully rejoined the book-bashing.”

Having seen a video of it online, John Mearsheimer wrote me a few weeks later:

“It was a truly amazing event.

The rhetoric is so over the top and the extent to which all three participants misrepresent our arguments is stunning. I was very surprised that Nick Lemann would not only participate in such a nasty affair, but frequently misrepresented our arguments. Until now, I had held him in high regard, as I know Steve had. His performance was shameful. None of this is to say that the participants had to agree with us, but one would think three well-educated and smart men would challenge what we actually said and not smear us and misrepresent us at point after point in the proceedings. All very sad.”

For months after that I told myself I was going to watch the thing online, but never got around to it, in part because Lemann, a New Yorker writer and dean of the Columbia Journalism School, is an old friend, and he and I have maintained the reserve around these divisive issues that many Jewish friends and family observe.

Then last month, Goldberg published his about-face on the Times Op-Ed page. Jews need to undergo "a radical rethinking of what it means to be pro-Israel" and political leaders must be free to have “blunt” discussions of Israel policy, or Israel is lost. He blasted the "leadership of the American Jewish community" for shutting down debate of Israel’s worst policies. And not just AIPAC or the Conference of Presidents, but a network of (unnamed) rich men in Chicago, New York, and "behind the gates of Boca Raton country clubs," who are determining policy in this region. And I thought Walt and Mearsheimer’s lobby definition was amorphous!

Goldberg’s piece was so important I finally watched the video. I can say that Buchanan and Mearsheimer’s accounts are largely accurate, though I’d stand up for a number of Lemann’s statements. In fact, I’m throwing all this out here now because of an eloquent speech he made at the start, that it’s essential to have a robust debate of these issues. "We are people of the book and we are raised on disputation of texts," he said. We love argument. We believe that the best argument wins after "a lot of bitter disputation." And he spoke of the intellectual’s role in the historical process. Bad arguments are abandoned before long, powerful ones last. Exactly; just as Goldberg has already abandoned some of his arguments that night.

Watch this panel for yourself. Peretz’s opening, in which he milks the overflow audience’s paranoia gland by saying that the evening will be "quite frightening" and that the panelists will discuss the book’s "possible consequences," sets the tone for the night. I kept reminding myself how much grief and angst there is among Jews over the Holocuast. It often feels as if the Cossacks are just outside the doors on W. 16th Street. Walt and Mearsheimer are again and again described as antisemites. Goldberg describes many of Walt and Mearsheimer’s supporters as "Nazis." He says Jimmy Carter is displacing his anger at what the Pharisees did to Christ on to Israel, and Walt and Mearsheimer are the second coming of Charles Lindbergh and Father Coughlin. I found that I couldn’t watch Goldhagen, his absorption in Jewish persecution is so entire. You have the feeling that if the U.S. invaded three more Muslim societies, killing hundreds of thousands of more Arabs and Persians, he would sit there trembling as he described the rise of antisemitism in Europe. But then no one here really talks about the Iraq war.

Goldberg has recently said that the Jewish community went into a “defensive crouch” when Walt and Mearsheimer’s book came out. This might explain why so much of the argument that night was emotional. A debate with Walt and Mearsheimer would be on the proposition, “The Jews are responsible for all wars,” Goldberg says. If you go on Amazon and look up The Israel Lobby, the books that people who bought that book also bought are a range of antisemitic titles (actually they’re a range of thoughtful books). Goldberg defends Israel’s moral record by laying out what "we" did to the Palestinians when he was in the Israeli army. This on the heels of Goldhagen saying that the "dual loyalty” issue is an antisemitic canard.

Lemann seems at first to be slightly apologetic that he’s there, winces at several stretchers, repeatedly prods the others about Israel’s dubious moral record, and does a reality check now and then. Twice he emphasizes that there’s "value" in Walt and Mearsheimer expressing the long-suppressed view of the State Department professionals and Arabists on Israel that is "not spoken of openly." I wish he had stated what that value is—after all, creationism is also suppressed, and who cares? I know Lemann well enough to be sure he regards Islamofascist talk as reductive and useless.

His best moment is when Goldberg, who has met lots of terrorists and presumably drunk tea with them, is saying he rejected an invitation to dine with Walt and Mearsheimer and would also refuse to debate them. Lemann tries to calm the others down, by saying, "I disagree with you guys personally. I would debate." He says he is bothered by the fact that Israel’s defenders on campus say "who needs this tsuris?" and don’t want to debate the ideas publicly, fearful of "antisemitism" on campus. "I think the debate is important to have." 

I know it’s been six months, but Walt and Mearsheimer should take him up on that offer. Or some institution ought to follow up on Lemann’s challenge.

I’m going to try and pushstart that debate by landing on two substantive points that were advanced that night.

The first involves intellectual history. When Walt and Mearsheimer wrote that Israel-centric neoconservatives were the decisive factor in producing the Iraq war, Goldberg argued, they thereby denied that Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Hadley, Rice et al had power. He made fun of the authors for this view and Lemann seemed to go along with it. But as Lemann’s own writing about ideas and policy shows, ideas are important. Marxism—just an idea. Freudianism, just an idea. The Great Society, just an idea. The Marshall Plan, just an idea (from a guy who opposed Truman on Israel, by the way, then won the Nobel Prize). Zionism–just a whacky idea from a man-about-town journalist. And so on. The point is not to deny that politicians have power, and Walt and Mearsheimer never did that; it is to recognize that after 9/11, during a fearful crisis in the life of our country, the politicians looked around for ideas to guide them. Everyone was panicked. Why did this happen? What should we do? The ideas the Bushies turned to came from Likudnik neocons (who may gotten their spots in the first place for reasons related to the causes now of Rob Malley and Zbig Brzezinski’s disqualification from Obama’s braintrust–and yes money is part of it) who said that stability in the Middle East would be produced not by doing anything about the Israeli occupation but by occupying Iraq. Cheney was talking to Bernard Lewis and Natan Sharansky, neocons. The press has done a lousy job of exposing this madness—because, like Goldberg himself, they served to advanced this disastrous war and hope that no one notices. Though Scott McClellan’s brave book has now gone a long way to mainstreaming the issue. 

The second point has to do with AIPAC. That night, Goldberg argued that AIPAC is just another lobby. He spoke of a comment he reported in the New Yorker that Walt and Mearsheimer seized upon: the brag by an AIPAC lobbyist that he could get 70 senators’ signatures on a napkin within a day. Goldberg said muscle-flexing like this is routine and meaningless in D.C.: a "ball bearings" industry lobbyist could get 70 senators’ signatures on a napkin. Lemann seconded this. He painted Walt and Mearsheimer as naïve scholars who had made the error of thinking of themselves as “public intellectuals,” i.e., they don’t know how to weigh real-world information. He mocked them finding the napkin quotation and jumping up at their desks. "Aha, see! It’s proven. QED. They [the Jews] do control everything!"

Walt and Mearsheimer never wrote that Jews control everything. They asked, What does the Jewish leadership control? To which Goldberg now answers, the illegal colonization of the West Bank and the ruinous inability of our presidential candidates to talk about that. And the 70 senators on a napkin statement can’t be wished away. In 1975, when Gerald Ford was angered by Israeli intransigence and decided to "reassess" American policy toward Israel, within a day or two he received a letter signed by 76 senators that was almost certainly drafted by AIPAC, Aaron David Miller reports in his book, The Much Too Promised Land. The senators said there would be no backing away from Israel. Their letter tied Ford’s hands when he was trying to play power politics with the Soviet Union by showing more sympathy for the Arab side, and the president later complained in his memoir that he had been tarred as an “anti-Semite” for this effort. (Ford should have known, those senators were just in a defensive crouch.)

15 years later, James Baker famously challenged AIPAC to give up the idea of colonizing the West Bank, and George H.W. Bush soon received a letter with 94 Senators’ signatures. Bush has said that his loss in the next election was partly due to his opposition to settlements. Bill Clinton did not make that mistake, and neither of course did Bush’s son.

And 15 years after Baker’s 94 signatures, the napkin with 70. It never ends. And neither do the settlements, which have fostered rage in the Arab world. Ball bearings.

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