In a public appearance Thursday, political science professor John Mearsheimer discussed his controversial new book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, at a lecture hosted by the Chicago Friends of Israel (CFI). The book, co-authored with Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, examines a loose coalition of pro-Israeli lobbyists that the authors say exerts considerable influence over U.S. Middle Eastern policy. The work has incited considerable controversy since its inception as a “working paper,” originally commissioned by The Atlantic Monthly in 2002 and eventually published by the London Review of Books in 2006.
Mearsheimer said that a powerful pro-Israel lobby controls and stifles discourse on American politics. He added that because the lobby’s views are not aligned with either American or Israeli interests, the U.S. should end its special relationship with Israel and treat it like other allies.
Mearsheimer said that in the book, he and Walt conclude that the United States should intervene only if Israel is threatened, and that unless current Israeli policies are altered, Israel may be responsible for a “South African–style apartheid.” He noted that the Palestinian population lives in economically crippled regions and that Palestinians are frequently treated as second-class citizens.
Critics of the book have labeled its arguments anti-Semitic and argue that its thesis perpetuates myths of “Jewish control.”
Mearsheimer dismissed these accusations in his talk and clarified the book’s positions. He added that there is a lack of national discourse on the subject, and said that vocal critics of current American–Israeli relations are frequently marginalized in academic and political spheres.
“Smearing distracts real issues, marginalizes, and deters others,” he said, adding that “there is no serious debate about American support.”
This lack of critical debate, Mearsheimer said, is a drawback for Israel. He argued that Israel, like any other state, sometimes pursues poor polices. As a result, it would be better if it could have an ally like the United States that could provide constructive criticism. He referred to the 2006 conflict with Lebanon as an incident that might have been ameliorated had U.S.–Israeli relations been less friendly and more pragmatic.
This tension was palpable at the lecture. One young woman in particular was visibly shaken by Mearsheimer’s talk. After several shakes of her head, she stepped out, only to return for her coat at the end of the Q&A session.
Second-year Liz Scoggin, publicity director of CFI, said that much consideration and conversation was involved in the decision to host the talk.
“A couple members of the organization heard him speak at the Quad Club, and felt that his position had been really, truly misrepresented. There is definitely tension in the organization in bringing [Mearsheimer]. [CFI members] don’t necessarily all agree with all his positions,” she said. “Thankfully, people are willing to get past their disagreements and bring in someone who comes from a very different perspective.”
She said that anti-Israel advocates had “claimed him as one of their own,” mischaracterizing his position.
“He’s fairly pro-Israel, he just doesn’t support unconditional support,” she said.