America and Israel
Published: April 1 2006
Freedom of academic debate, political polemic, populist prejudice, outlandish exaggeration and even mildly slanderous innuendo about anything from Britney Spears to the president is axiomatic in the United States of America, is it not? Well, perhaps not altogether.
Reflexes that ordinarily spring automatically to the defence of open debate and free enquiry shut down - at least among much of America’s political elite - once the subject turns to Israel, and above all the pro-Israel lobby’s role in shaping US foreign policy.
Even though policy towards the Middle East is arguably the single biggest determinant of America’s reputation in the world, any attempt to rethink this from first principles is politically risky.
Examining the specific role of organisations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, commonly considered to be the most effective lobby group in the US apart from the National Rifle Association, is something to be undertaken with caution.
Doctrinal orthodoxy was flouted last month in a paper on the Israel lobby by two of America’s leading political scientists, Stephen Walt from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago. They argue powerfully that extraordinarily effective lobbying in Washington has led to a political consensus that American and Israeli interests are inseparable and identical.
Only a UK publication, the London Review of Books, was prepared to carry their critique, in the same way that it was Prospect, a British monthly journal, that four years ago published a path-breaking study of the Israel lobby by the American analyst, Michael Lind.
Moral blackmail - the fear that any criticism of Israeli policy and US support for it will lead to charges of anti-Semitism - is a powerful disincentive to publish dissenting views. It is also leading to the silencing of policy debate on American university campuses, partly as the result of targeted campaigns against the dissenters.
Judgment of the precise value of the Walt-Mearscheimer paper has been swept aside by a wave of condemnation. Their scholarship has been derided and their motives impugned, while Harvard has energetically disassociated itself from their views. Mr Walt’s position as academic dean of the Kennedy School is in doubt.
On various counts, this is a shame and a self-inflicted wound no society built on freedom should allow.
Honest and informed debate is the foundation of freedom and progress and a precondition of sound policy. It is, to say the least, odd when dissent in such a central area of policy is forced offshore or reduced to the status of samizdat. Some of Israel’s loudest cheerleaders, moreover, are often divorced by their extremism from the mainstream of American Jewish opinion and the vigorous debate that takes place inside Israel. As Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, remarked in Haaretz about the Walt-Mearsheimer controversy: “It would in fact serve Israel if the open and critical debate that takes place over here were exported over there [the US].”Nothing, moreover, is more damaging to US interests than the inability to have a proper debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how Washington should use its influence to resolve it, and how best America can advance freedom and stability in the region as a whole. Bullying Americans into a consensus on Israeli policy is bad for Israel and makes it impossible for America to articulate its own national interest.