Professors defend controversial bestseller at I-House lecture

By Rhema Hokama

This month’s publication of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy spurred ongoing debate over the United States’ role in Middle Eastern politics. John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard, co-authored the book, which expands upon an article the two published in the London Review of Books last year. Their book has generated both accusations of anti-Semitism against the authors and claims that their scathing criticism is academic censorship in disguise.

Mearsheimer and Walt argue that America’s pro-Israel lobby—including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the Anti-Defamation League—pushes an agenda damaging to both the U.S. and Israel.

Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard Law School, and Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League have been among the most vocal critics of The Israel Lobby.

In a blog entry criticizing Mearsheimer and Walt, Dershowitz wrote that the co-authors were guilty of “shoddy scholarship,” “misstatement of ‘facts,’” and “blatant errors in logic.”

He also said that The Israel Lobby espoused anti-Semitic viewpoints.

“Dean Walt and Professor Mearsheimer wrote that Jews control the media and the government; that we are loyal to Israel rather than to our ‘host’ country; and that we dupe non-Jews, against their best interests, into fighting and dying for our interest. All that was missing from the Walt-Mearsheimer screed was the ‘blood libel’: the medieval accusation that Jews use the blood of Christian children to make Passover matzo,” Dershowitz wrote.

During a talk at the University’s International House last night, the authors made clear that they had attempted to “go to great lengths in our book to say that we’re not talking about the Jewish Lobby, we’re talking about the Israel Lobby,” Mearsheimer said.

In response to the flurry of criticism the book has generated, many organizations have cancelled or postponed book promotions and lectures previously scheduled with Mearsheimer and Walt.

“Almost every place we have appeared has had protests to cancel the events.… We’re not complaining, but this highlights the Lobby’s interest in suppressing discussion,” Walt said.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a non-partisan organization, announced last month that the board had cancelled a talk featuring Mearsheimer and Walt that was scheduled to take place in September.

“Given the controversy that surrounded their article on the same subject last year, I felt it was essential that the authors present their views as part of a discussion with other speakers who would bring context and different viewpoints,” wrote Marshall Bouton, president of the Council, in a letter to members last month. “This approach is critical to the Council’s role as a nonpartisan forum for public learning, especially around such highly charged subjects.”

Bouton said that the talk was cancelled because the Council had inadequate time to secure individuals who would present opposing viewpoints at the talk.

In response to the cancellation, Mearsheimer and Walt sent a letter to the Council’s board members outlining the situation.

“On July 24, Council President Marshall Bouton phoned and informed him that he was canceling the event,” they wrote. “He said he felt ‘extremely uncomfortable making this call’ and that his decision did not reflect his personal view on the subject of our book. Instead, he explained that his decision was based on the need ‘to protect the institution.’”

“ couldn’t put the spin on it that they wanted, so they cancelled it,” said Ian Birkner, associate director of the Center for International Studies. “They wanted to include an opposing viewpoint and when they couldn’t do that, they decided not to have the talk.” The cancellation led the Center to invite the authors to speak at last night’s events.

Birkner said that the Chicago Council attempted to secure the Anti-Defamation League’s Foxman as a panelist for the talk.

Mearsheimer and Walt had previously turned down an invitation to debate Harvard’s Derschowitz. “We have a basic rule of thumb, which is we don’t debate someone who has called us anti-Semites,” Mearsheimer said last night.

“The only way wanted to have this event is to make it into an issue of whether or not this should be talked about, which would defeat the whole purpose of having the talk anyway,” Birkner said. “I think that a large part of the topic he’s writing about is the issue of whether it’s okay or not to talk about .”

He added that the Center for International Studies is not seeking out individuals to present opposing viewpoints at the talk.

“Personally my attitude toward this is when we’re doing events…you don’t need to have both sides presented. I’m thinking about the talk we had on Chechnya. It wasn’t necessary to include the Russian point of view at that lecture,” Birkner said.

Last night’s event was sponsored through a mixture of University and private funds.