April 15, 2006

AIPAC meets Portnoy?

Here's a rarity. It's a serious conservative critique of Mearsheimer and Walt's Israel Lobby article that appeared in the London Review of Books last month. Written by Eric Alterman in The Nation and titled AIPAC's Complaint it covers the literally hysterical response before going on to critique the article. I'm fairly certain that the title is a play on the Philip Roth title, Portnoy's Complaint, which is about a Jewish boy with an obsession defined thus:
A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.
Does that bear comparison with American zionists who use all the freedoms conferred by the democratic secular state of America to support an ethno-religious state based on colonial settlement, ethnic cleansing and racist laws? Anyway here are some chunks of the Alterman article:
The University of Chicago's John Mearsheimer is among America's most admired political scientists. Stephen Walt is the academic dean and a chaired professor at Harvard's Kennedy School. Neither man has ever made any remotely racist or anti-Semitic utterance in the public sphere. And yet because they recently published an essay in The London Review of Books and (with full scholarly apparatus) on the Kennedy School website that critically and--this is key--unsentimentally examines the role of the "Israel lobby" in the making of US foreign policy, these two scholars have been subjected to a relentless barrage of vituperative insults in which the accusation "anti-Semite" is merely the beginning. Just a few of the most colorful: "Crackpot" (Martin Peretz); "Could have been written by Pat Buchanan, by David Duke, Noam Chomsky, and some of the less intelligent members of Hamas" (Alan Dershowitz); "As scholarly as...Welch and McCarthy--and just as nutty" (Max Boot); "puts The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to shame" (Josef Joffe); "resembles nothing so much as Wilhelm Marr's 1879 pamphlet The Victory of Judaism Over Germandom" (Ruth Wisse); "dishonest so-called intellectuals...entitled to their stupidity" (New York Representative Eliot Engel).

One is tempted to point out that the authors themselves predicted the likelihood of such a reception, and by provoking it they have proved their point. They note--relying on research by yours truly--that pro-Israel voices dominate punditocracy discourse and add that the lobby almost always plays the "anti-Semite" card to stifle debate about Israel's behavior in general and its own actions in particular. Machers at official Jewish organizations--accurately characterized in the paper as far more belligerent than the Jewish community generally--have suggested in circulated e-mails that Israel supporters might want to threaten the Kennedy School's funding. The school's administration has distanced itself from the controversy by removing its imprimatur from the paper and posting Dershowitz's attack on it at the same web address. If any young scholars--without the protective armor that Walt and Mearsheimer's reputations afford, to say nothing of tenured professorships--are considering research into a similar topic, well, they won't need a weatherman to know which way this (idiot) wind blows.

One is also tempted to infer that what scares the character assassins into such self-revealing fits of ferocity is the fear that the authors have revealed the unhappy truths they'd rather suppress. We have an ex-New York Times executive editor admitting that he favored Israel in the paper's coverage, and it's not even Abe Rosenthal. They quote the longtime editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal saying, "Shamir, Sharon, Bibi--whatever those guys want is pretty much fine by me." They quote former AIPAC officials bragging about Jewish power and influence in Congress and the executive branch and supplement this with a variety of US officials complaining of the power of this network to get what it wants, regardless of the merits of a given argument. The authors also focus a laser beam on the lobby's take-no-prisoners attitude toward any politician who departs from the lobby's line--up to and including Howard Dean's innocuous pronouncement that the United States should play an "even-handed role" in the Middle East. Finally, they demonstrate that while it contains the word "American" in its name, AIPAC does Israel's bidding, pure and simple.
And now for the critique bit:
For authors whose work I have long admired--I've known Walt a long time, though casually, and not long ago I was the commentator on a paper Mearsheimer offered at the Council on Foreign Relations--their paper has surprising weaknesses. Perhaps because they are relatively new to the topic, the authors treat the "pro-Israel" American Jewish community as virtually monolithic. Yet while much of its power and influence rest with AIPAC and the neocons--who together with many others did do everything they could to drag America into this catastrophic war--it also contains many passionate opponents of just these tendencies. These are Jews who identify as both Jewish and pro-Israel but do so on the basis of a fundamentally different vision from the one that animates the likes of Peretz, Podhoretz, Perle and AIPAC's armies of the right.

Second, the authors offer up the lobby as virtually the only determinant of US Middle East policy, as if the oil states, oil companies and the vast wealth they represent count for bubkes. That's just silly. The power of oil to determine the course of US foreign policy, like most things, is not what it once was. But neither is it chopped liver. And while things have probably progressed to the point where the AIPAC team can best the Saudis and their minions most of the time, it's still a fight and sometimes requires retreat and compromise. Why the authors treat this factor so dismissively is a mystery. (It may, however, have something to do with the authors' acceptance of a narrative of Middle East history in which Israel plays no useful strategic role for the United States--another mystery to this reader and Realist sympathizer.)


Third, while it's fair to call AIPAC obnoxious and even anti-democratic, the same can often be said about, say, the NRA, Big Pharma and other powerful lobbies. The authors note this but often seem to forget it. This has the effect of making the Jews who read the paper feel unfairly singled out, and inspires much emotionally driven mishigas in reaction.
And here's how it ends:
Do these problems justify the inference that the authors are anti-Semitic? Of course not. Raising the issue purely on the basis of intellectual disagreement is shameful--and actually helpful to genuine anti-Semites, as it diminishes the accusation's potency. While much of the paper is compelling, its weaknesses will hinder the authors' attempt to pierce the wall of ignorance and intimidation erected around such policy debates by the very institutions upon which it seeks to shed light. This is a damn shame, as AIPAC and its minions are pushing for an attack, possibly nuclear, on Iran, and, God help us, it seems to be working--again.
So the critic goes a long way to agreeing with the authors but he feels they should have expressed themselves more sensitively.

The significance of this is that there is a conservative critique of America's support for Israel emerging, and not just from the wackier or more obnoxious exponents of paleo-conism or isolationism.

UPDATE: Have a look at this comment from Evan Jones of Alert and Alarmed.

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