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Slater defends Walt and Mearsheimer from Rothkopf’s ‘Brooks Brothers’ attack

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What I have urged more than anything else in the Israel lobby discussion is: discussion! Because only with open discussion can the true extent of the Israel lobby be understood. Chas Freeman's ouster has had a huge effect, of course. A week or so back David Rothkopf published a vicious attack on Walt and Mearsheimer at Foreign Policy suggesting the lobby is a figment of their gentile imaginations. Below, Jerry Slater, a friend of this site who has published his own critique of Walt and Mearsheimer and is distinguished for practicing the new history of Israel/Palestine in our country, leaps to the scholars' defense re Rothkopf. An ardent, sincere, and moving argument. Slater:

In the year and a half since the publication of John Mearsheimer’s and Stephen Walt’s Israel Lobby, the attacks on the book’s main arguments as well as personal attacks on its authors have intensified–even as Israeli policies and behavior towards the Palestinians have become more disastrous than ever, and even as the lobby demonstrated its muscle in its successful effort to induce Obama to abandon support for the appointment of Charles Freeman as Director of the National Intelligence Council.

The most recent such attack—and in a number of ways perhaps the nadir of all of them, at least for now–was David Rothkopf”s March 12 column on the Foreign Policy web site, “Why Freeman Was Wrong Himself About What His Defeat Signified.” Oddly, Rothkopf begins by admitting what is obvious to almost everyone else, that the Freeman affair “offered apparent support to the ‘theories’ of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer…there is no doubt that a small group of virulent supporters of Israel were at the heart of the movement to undo Freeman” (emphasis in original), and that this group was “very effective in getting its message out and in mobilizing some in the government…to become their advocates.”

Rothkopf continues: Thanks to the efforts of this group and “the mob mentality [it] generated…it was impossible for [Freeman] to assume the role for which he was nominated,” the consequence of which was that “a great disservice [was] done to Freeman and to the U.S. government….When political leaders cave to the sentiments of the electronic mob…[they] debase the process and rob the government of the diversity of perspectives it needs.”

It is hard to see how Mearsheimer and Walt themselves could have made a stronger case for the power of the Israel lobby. “I have really been struggling with that issue for the past few days myself,” Rothkopf admits, “wondering whether it was time to acknowledge that perhaps Walt was right.” However, he manages to fight off this thought, and concludes that the incident would not change his view of the Mearsheimer/Walt argument. To be sure, for several reasons even the Freeman incident does not by itself conclusively demonstrate the accuracy of the full Israel lobby thesis. Even so, one might think that if the incident came so close to convincing Rothkopf, by his own admission, that the Mearsheimer-Walt argument was right, there is a certain inconsistency in attacking the authors of the argument as cynical and dishonest hacks.

Rothkopf makes a number of charges against Mearsheimer and Walt’s argument in the Israel Lobby, among them “the notion that support for Israel comes from a monolithic group rather than one that is not only ethnically…and otherwise diverse but one that holds a variety of nuanced views on a host of issues regarding Israel and the Middle East;” that the book implies that “those who support Israel are necessarily twisted by dual loyalties into positions that undermine the interest of the United States;” that the authors believe that “normal behavior in a democracy is somehow sinister for one group when it is healthy for others;” and that the book attacks the motives of those who lobby in support of Israel rather than focusing on the merits of the alternative policies that Mearsheimer and Walt advocate.

I am hardly an uncritical enthusiast of the Mearsheimer/Walt argument; in fact I have just published a long article in Security Studies which contains a number of significant criticisms of the Israel Lobby —among them that the authors define the lobby too broadly; that the lobby’s obvious power in Congress is not always matched by its power over the executive branch or over public opinion; that typically its power over official policy derives less from its ability to force the government to do what it wants than from arguments that (rightly or wrongly, usually the latter) influence policy makers in the executive branch; that Mearsheimer and Walt do not give sufficient emphasis to the cases in which the lobby fails to get its way, and more.

Nonetheless, Rothkopf’s charges are all false, indicating that he hasn’t actually read the Israel Lobby, or that he misunderstands its arguments, or that he chooses to misrepresent them. For example, Mearsheimer and Walt do not attack the motives or the loyalties of the lobby and its supporters, nor their right to lobby for their preferred policies. Moreover, they specifically deny—repeatedly, and at length–that the lobby is monolithic, that supporters of Israel knowingly give priority to Israel’s interests over those of the United States, or that the lobby’s behavior is inconsistent with democracy. And Rothkopf’s statement that Mearsheimer and Walt fail to argue the merits of U.S. policies towards Israel is particularly absurd, since close to half the book is devoted precisely to long, highly-detailed case studies in which the authors persuasively criticize the substance of U.S. policies towards Israel and in the Middle East generally. 

There are other oddities, shall we say, in the Rothkopf attack. For example, it is not clear what he means when he complains that Walt’s commentary on the Freeman case is “laden with a list of co-conspirators with names so Jewish that I could hardly read it without cringing.” Is Rothkopf cringing because he is ashamed to see Jews playing the role of hatchet men to prevent serious critics of Israeli policies from serving in important government roles, or is he cringing because he thinks that Walt’s references to the anti-Freeman leaders demonstrates his anti-Semitism—even though, in fact, all or almost all the leading opponents of Freeman were in fact Jewish?

In another puzzling assertion, Rothkopf writes that the Israel lobby argument “indicts the motives associated with a whole class of ideas enabling them to be dismissed before they are fairly considered.” Maybe I’m missing something here, but this seems to be saying it is “pro-Israeli” views that can’t get a fair hearing in this country rather than those of Israel’s critics. Rothkopf appears to be thinking of a different planet.

Mearsheimer and Walt hardly need my help in pointing out that Rothkopf’s and many other criticisms of their argument are false, if not pernicious; indeed, they have effectively done so many times. It’s a different matter, perhaps, when it comes to ad hominum attacks, particularly Rothkopf’s. Consider what is clearly the heart of Rothkopf’s attack on Mearsheimer and Walt:

They may not be anti-Semites themselves [meaning: they may be] but they made a cynical decision to cash in on anti-Semitism by offering to dress up old hatreds in the dowdy Brooks Brothers suits of the Kennedy School and the University of Chicago. They did what the most desperate members of academia do, they signed up to be rent-a-validators, akin to expert witnesses who support the defense of felons with specious theories served up on fancy diplomas…. In reality they were giving one crowd in particular precisely what it wanted to hear.

In nearly fifty years in this profession, I cannot recall seeing in a professional publication a more defamatory, demagogic, and irresponsible passage. Mearsheimer and Walt, two of our most prestigious academicians (ranked fifth and twenty-second, respectively, in a survey of international relations scholars having the greatest impact in their field), chaired professors at two of the world’s greatest universities, are either personally anti-Semitic or cynical hacks who decided to “cash in” on anti-Semitism– presumably meaning to advance their careers, if not to become rich.

Perhaps I may be in a better position to respond to this attack than Mearsheimer and Walt, and not merely because I have my own criticisms of The Israel Lobby. Unlike Walt and Mearsheimer, I’m Jewish, which may make it somewhat more difficult to charge me with anti-Semitism—though of course not impossible, since there is always the self-hating Jew gambit. Moreover, as a former Fulbright lecturer at Haifa University, and once a volunteer to serve in the Israeli navy, it presumably is also slightly more difficult to charge me with being “anti-Israel.”

Second, since I am merely a member of the academic middle class with no connection to either Harvard’s Kennedy School or Chicago’s political science department, I cannot be considered to be a Brooks Brothers suit-wearing member of what Rothkopf, apparently having failed to look up the names of the faculty at those institutions, hilariously seems to believe is a preserve of a stuffy Wasp academic aristocracy.

Finally– and by no means least–while it may be beneath the dignity of Walt and Mearsheimer to respond to Rothkopf’s vicious personal attack, it is certainly not beneath mine.

Rothkopf’s attack on the motives of Walt and Mearsheimer is made without even a hint of evidence to support it. Apparently, Rothkopf thinks evidence is irrelevant, a fault that is hardly uncommon among those who cannot abide serious criticism of Israeli and U.S. policies. Indeed, since his entire piece is full of self-referential comments—“Believe me,” “I know for a fact,” “My problem is,” “I’m ok with that,” “Freeman I can forgive, Walt, not”—Rothkopf apparently expects readers to accept his charges merely on his say-so.

Perhaps the most important point is that there are larger issues at stake here. In the course of my lifetime the United States has gone from being a country in which anti-Semitism was significant to one which has been more welcoming and rewarding to Jews, in every way, than perhaps any other in history. The danger of playing the anti-Semitic card when Israel or the actions of its see-no-evil Jewish supporters are subject to perfectly legitimate criticism is not just that it is morally and intellectually disreputable to do so, but that irresponsible rants such as Rothkopf’s might eventually undermine our remarkable position.

Jerome Slater

Jerome Slater is a professor (emeritus) of political science and now a University Research Scholar at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He has taught and written about U.S. foreign policy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for nearly 50 years, both for professional journals (such as International Security, Security Studies, and Political Science Quarterly) and for many general periodicals. He writes foreign policy columns for the Sunday Viewpoints section of the Buffalo News. And his website it www.jeromeslater.com.

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