Monday, August 20, 2007

Lobbing Smears

When something that supposedly doesn't exist affects how people in the real world behave, does this signify its actual existence, or merely the paranoia of those who hate?

I ask this tangled question after reading a recent New York Times story in which the concept of an "Israeli lobby" was dismissed by Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman, whose latest book, "The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control" apparently lays the issue to rest. And yet, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, whose co-authored book, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" is about to be released, have had appearances in New York, Washington, and Chicago turned down or canceled, due to the touchiness of their topic.

Coincidence? Justice? A shift in rhetorical taste? Whatever the cause, it cannot have anything to do with, say, external pressure from Foxman and like-minded others, can it?

Of course not. Only conspiracy theorists would make such an argument, for as we all know, there are no pro-Israel pressure groups and individuals who go after those critical of Israeli aggression and occupation. Just ask Norman Finkelstein.

No less an expert than Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America informed me personally that not only is there no Israeli lobby, but that the US government is hostile to Israeli interests and undermines Israel whenever it can. This is why, during our debate later that same evening, Klein repeatedly interrupted me or tried to drown me out with a steady stream of non-sequitors and slams. What choice did he have, operating from such a powerless position? When I reminded him that I respected his speaking time and merely asked that he respect mine, Klein gruffly replied, "Tough."

See what Israeli supporters must do to find openings in this hostile environment? All tactics are on the table.

Funny thing is, I concur with the Lobby Deniers to a certain degree. Yes, there are pro-Israel groups whose main purpose is to maintain if not strengthen the economic/military status quo between Washington and Tel Aviv. And yes, some of these groups, alongside individuals sympathetic to their agendas, attempt to influence public debate about Israeli policies, up to and including targeting and sliming politicians, academics, and writers who don't toe their party lines. All of that is beyond debate. The question is, does Israel wag the US, or is Israel no more than a willing participant in overall US foreign policy?

My personal view is the latter, with a few caveats here and there. US elites have a far broader global perspective than just dealing with Israel's concerns, and this is especially true in the Middle East. How else to explain why the US has strong alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia simultaneously, as well as with Egypt, Jordan, and Pakistan? Of course, Israel plays an active role in this regional policy, which in the past included its silent backing of Saddam when he waged war against Iran in the 1980s. (There was also Israel's activity in Central American affairs at that same time, but that's another region for another day.) Yet for the most part, Israel doesn't run this policy, at least when it affects interests outside of the West Bank, Gaza, and southern Lebanon. And even in those closer conflicts, Washington has influenced Israel more than the other way around. So, no, I don't buy into the Zionist Occupation Government idea. US elites operate according to their perceived interests; and since 1967, Israel has been an active partner in many of their pursuits.

This is not to say that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt believe exclusively in the Big Bad Israel Lobby idea, either, though based on their paper, they do take the lobby more seriously than do I. Sharing the same stage with John Mearsheimer at YearlyKos, I listened closely to his presentation, and while I had several disagreements with John, I didn't find his argument to be conspiratorial, much less anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish, or even anti-Israel. Indeed, John made it clear several times that he supports the right of Israel to exist, and that his criticisms were based on his concern for Israel's future, rather than some desire to see the Jewish state driven into the sea. As I've noted before, if anything, John was overly careful and cautious, but the facts are what they are, and no amount of throat-clearing can place Israel's war on the Palestinians in a positive light. To the more zealous Israel supporters, simply presenting the factual picture is blood libel and a call for pogroms. No matter how polite or conservative John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt are, the zealous will never be placated, for they know what people like Mearsheimer and Walt "really" think.

After our panel, John, Juan Cole, his wife Shahin, and myself went to John's favorite restaurant in Chicago's Chinatown, and enjoyed a delicious, 3-hour dinner together. We talked about many topics, with Juan and John locking horns over the role of oil companies in the Iraq invasion. (Juan believes there was some pressure from big oil to invade, while John said that he has yet to see any compelling evidence that this was so. I land somewhere in between. Centrist!) Naturally, Israel took up a lot of our time, and all four of us debated various aspects of US Middle Eastern policy and its relation to Israel and the Palestinians. But I never, ever, got the impression that John Mearsheimer held a single anti-Semitic idea in his head. If anything, John is a foreign policy conservative -- not a neocon, a mindset that appalls him, but an old school American intellectual concerned for the fate of his country.

Now, there are those who, having read my many thoughts on the Middle East over the years, and who've sent me numerous noxious emails in that time, will not or cannot believe anything I say in defense of John Mearsheimer. To be expected, and I won't bother trying to correct them. Just know that I've been around real anti-Semites since my youth (I encountered a lot of Jew hatred in, of all places, the US Army), so I recognize that walk and talk, and John Mearsheimer simply doesn't display it. Not in my direct experience, anyway. In fact, I heard more anti-Jewish slander coming from the mouth of writer Sidney Zion, a self-described Israel supporter, who at the Tarrytown debate last year drunkenly told an Israeli from Haifa, "Fuck you, Jew-boy!" Somehow, Mort Klein, sitting next to Zion, found nothing wrong with that remark. I wonder what he thinks of John Mearsheimer . . .