Friday, June 06, 2008

The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy

I've yet to fullfil a promise made in an earlier post and, what is worse, I've only compounded things by failing to reply in full to comments made (in particular by Paul Horwitz) in turn to my comment over at PrawfsBlawg that generated not a little heat, so it's with some hesitation that I share the following with you, dear reader. I still intend to address the aforementioned items, but as they require more time than I've been able to muster of late, I leave you instead with a letter that was hastily written in response to a book review in the journal Democratiya ('a free bi-monthly online review of books') by one Lyn Julius of Ruth R. Wisse's Jews and Power (2007).

I wrote the letter at the request of the editor, Professor Alan Johnson, who replied to a brief note I had sent him about the subject matter covered here: "Much better would be for you to work up your email into a letter to which Lyn Julius could be invited to respond in the next issue of Democratiya. I think a free exchange of arguments is better than talk of retractions and so on. What do you think?" My response, noticeably a tad irritable if not irascible in retrospect:

"That's fine, although one would think there would be no case whatsoever for an argument based on the passage I cited (and I of course will now, tediously, cite yet more passages). Sometimes the evidence is such (preponderant, overwhelming, obvious, clear, what have you) that it is determinative or decisive, as in this case, when you have a patent contradiction between the assertion by Julius and a sentence from the book, a sentence that is not vague, ambiguous, less than forthright, etc., and is backed by similar passages that both precede and follow it in the book. In short, she has nothing whatsoever to construct an argument on with which to support her proposition, there are no premises from which she may build a supporting argument. But by all means, let's proceed into the realm of magical realism, of political fantasy, of wishful thinking, of states of denial...."

The letter:

Dear Editor(s),

In a review of Ruth Wisse’s Jews and Power (2007) in Democratiya (13/ Summer 2008), Lyn Julius makes the following remarkable if only because unsustainable claim: that those of us who, like myself, find “John Walt and Stephen Mearsheimer's The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy persuasive,” the Wisse book is the “perfect antidote.” And why is that, precisely? “In contrast to Walt and Mearsheimer's account of a shadowy Jewish cabal manipulating US foreign policy, Wisse's book is a study of Jewish powerlessness.”

Well, after reading that remark, I wondered if Julius and I had read the same book, or if Julius had read the book at all. Indeed, let’s be charitable and accord Julius the benefit of presumption: in which case there's a deliberate distortion of their argument, in fact, the claim is exactly the opposite of that made by Messrs. Walt and Mearsheimer, to wit: “The Israel lobby is the antithesis of a cabal or conspiracy; it operates out in the open and proudly advertises its own clout. In its basic operations, the Israel lobby is no different from interest groups like the farm lobby, steel and textile workers...” (p. 150, emphasis added). But that sentence does not stand alone in their book, as we read even in the introduction that “the claim that an interest group whose ranks are mostly Jewish has a powerful, not to mention negative, influence on U.S. foreign policy is sure to make some Americans deeply uncomfortable—and possibly fearful and angry—because it sounds like a charge lifted from the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that well-known anti-Semitic forgery that purported to reveal an all-powerful Jewish cabal exercising secret control over the world” (p. 12). From there they proceed to summarize the “centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe,” noting that, “Given this long history of persecution, American Jews are understandably sensitive to any argument that sounds like someone is blaming them for policies gone awry. This sensitivity is compounded by the memory of bizarre conspiracies theories of the sort laid out in the Protocols. Dire warnings of secretive ‘Jewish influence’ remain a staple of neo-Nazis and other extremists, such as the hate-mongering former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, which reinforces Jewish concerns even more” (p. 12).

So, what to make of this? It is clear that Walt and Mearsheimer set out to distance themselves as far as possible from any association with arguments identical or akin to those whose primary causal variable is a “shadowy Jewish cabal” of some sort or which appeal to conspiracy theories of any stripe. I’ve only selectedly quoted from the relevant material, so one has to read the book in full to appreciate the sincerity and extent of their explicit—and I might add, successful—endeavor to not be construed as minting an argument of “cabal” or “conspiracy” coinage. Still in the introduction, they state, categorically:

"The Israel lobby is not a cabal or conspiracy or anything of the sort. It is engaged in good old-fashioned interest group politics, which is as American as apple pie. Pro-Israel groups in the United States are engaged in the same enterprise as other interest groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the AARP, or professional associations like the American Petroleum Institute, all of which also work hard to influence congressional legislation and presidential priorities, and which, for the most part, operate in the open." (p. 13)

If all of this is not obvious or transparent enough, consider too the following:

"J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Jewish weekly newspaper the Forward and the author of Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment, nicely captures the difficulty of talking about the lobby: ‘It seems as though we’re forced to choose between Jews holding vast and pernicious control or Jewish influence being non-existent.’ In fact, he notes, ‘somewhere in the middle is a reality that none wants to discuss, which is that there is an entity called the Jewish community made up of a group of organizations and public figures that’s part of the political rough-and-tumble. There’s nothing wrong with playing the game like everybody else.’ We agree completely. But we think it is fair and indeed necessary to examine the consequences that this ‘rough-and-tumble’ interest group politics can have on America and the world." (p. 14)

Lastly, and perhaps tediously at this point, let’s look how they use the term “Israel lobby:”

"We use ‘Israel lobby’ as a convenient shorthand term for the loose coalition of individuals and organizations that actively work to shape U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. The lobby is not a single, unified movement with a central leadership, however, and the individuals and groups that make up this broad coalition sometimes disagree on specific policy issues. Nor is it some cabal or conspiracy. On the contrary, the organizations and individuals who make up this lobby operate out in the open and in the same way that other interests groups do. Using the term ‘Israel lobby’ is itself somewhat misleading, insofar as many of the individuals and some of the groups in this loose coalition do not engage in formal lobbying activities (direct efforts to persuade elected officials). Rather, the various parts of the lobby work to influence U.S. policy in a variety of ways, much as other interest groups do. One might more accurately dub this the ‘pro-Israel community’ or even the ‘help Israel movement,’ because the range of activities that different groups undertake goes beyond simple lobbying. Nonetheless, because many of the key groups do lobby, and because the term ‘Israel lobby’ is used in common parlance (along with labels such as the ‘farm lobby,’ ‘insurance lobby,’ ‘gun lobby,’ or other ethnic lobbies), we have chosen to employ it here." (pp. 112-113).

Wait, there’s a bit more to Julius’s assertion that is troubling. Wisse’s book is apparently a work of Jewish history, covering historical and geographical territory the bulk of which is not at all within the purview of Walt and Mearsheimer’s thesis, for their work is principally concerned with the last three decades, and especially with post-Cold War period of American foreign policy and the impact of the Israel lobby on that policy. It’s in the realm of magical realism or political fantasy or willful ignorance to therefore construe Jews and Power as in any sense the “perfect antidote” to the argument of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. To stay close to the metaphor, our authors are diagnosing two very different illnesses, whatever their respective prescriptions.

As to the book review itself and its litany of yet more astounding assertions and well-worn arguments that deal (explicitly or by insinuation) with the contemporary period and the Israeli/Palestinian (and Arab) conflict, I have neither the stamina nor the time now to argue in rebuttal, so it will have to suffice to list some of the authors one might read to assess the merits of at least some of the more extravagant claims (in no particular order and off the top of my head, thus it is far from exhaustive): Ilan Pappé, Baruch Kimmerling, Noam Chomsky, Samih Farsoun and C.E. Zacharia, Edward Said, Uri Davis, Nur Masalha, Uri Ram, Rashid Khalidi, Walid Khalidi, Gershon Shafir, Benny Morris, Naseer H. Aruri, Joel Beinin, Francis A. Boyle, Richard Falk, Jonathan Cook, Charles D. Smith, Norman Finkelstein, Sami Hadawi, Ian Lustik, Maxime Rodinson, Eugen Rogan and Avi Shlaim, and As’ad Ghanem.

All good wishes,

Patrick S. O’Donnell (June 6, 2008)

[Please note: In my original letter (and as you'll see in my letter to the editor) I made the presumption that "Lyn" was a "she." I could be mistaken, so I left out the gender presumption in this copy.]

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