Confessions of an AIPAC trained liberal Israeli

By Talia Gorodness

I got a call from my mother the other day. She asked me anxiously: “Your school! I have been reading the weekend newspaper, and noticed an article about some paper one of your professors has written…maybe finally I will not have to explain to my friends here [in Israel] that my daughter in fact attends a rather prestigious school.” I asked her what it was about, to which she dismissively said, “Oh, I don’t know, something anti-Semitic.”

Like any good U of C student, I then read the primary source—the Mearsheimer and Walt paper—and just about every decent commentary I could find about it. Admittedly, the article took me by surprise. It was filled with dubious historical claims and false accusations. It was not hard to find an impressive number of websites, magazines, policy institutes, and scholars explaining exactly what’s wrong with the so-called “Israel Lobby” paper. The variety and abundance of criticisms invoked in this paper seemed endless. Instead of giving yet another critique of the paper, I would like to take the opportunity to reflect on some of the absurdities of the U.S.–Israeli relationship.

Growing up in Israel, the question of whether my state had a “right” to exist never came up. It was obvious that Jews were not safe unless they could live within a demarcated territory and defend themselves. What seemed important was the existence of a separation barrier and the logistic implementation of a two-state solution. Teenage curiosity led me to seek out the history books that showed the side of Israel that was not taught in school. It was what brought me to demonstrations against the separation barrier and the purchase of products made in the settlements. I truly wanted to see the statement made in 1918 by David Ben Gurion, who became the first Prime Minister of Israel, actualized: “Palestine is not an empty country…on no account must we injure the rights of the inhabitants.”

To my surprise, when I moved to the U.S. about three and a half years ago, my views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict left people with baffled expressions on their faces. They would ask, “Does that mean that you are anti-Israel, then?” Conversely, for the first time in my life, I was accused of being conservative because I didn’t question the legitimacy of Israel’s existence. It was my turn to be baffled. What does being “anti-Israel” mean? Can someone be “anti-Australia?” Can someone be “anti” an entire country? I soon realized that being “pro-Israel” simply meant that I supported Israel’s right to exist. Sure, I thought to myself—I suppose I am “pro-Israel.”

This view was shattered when I was invited to my first American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) political leadership training seminar in Washington, D.C. The three-day conference of 300 students from across the U.S., hosted in a fancy five-star hotel on Capitol Hill, featured an array of ambassadors, policy makers, and prominent scholars, as well as various workshops and activities. The illuminati present made it clear that to be considered “pro-Israel” meant to support the Israeli government’s policies, whatever they may be.

This was mind boggling. No government can always be right or make “good” decisions constantly, thus no government should always be supported. Israel’s king is certainly no philosopher (especially the recently elected one)—and until the government is always correct, I do not see why it should be unequivocally, dogmatically supported. To that extent, Mearsheimer and Walt are correct in the most important argument in their paper: The Israel lobby (composed of special interest groups, the most prominent of which is AIPAC) may harm Israel’s true interests. It made the continuation of the occupation and the settlements possible. Its influence has led to missed opportunity on a peace treaty with Syria and lost opportunities at Oslo, among other things. The effort to suppress the Palestinian national movement did not enhance Israel’s security; on the contrary, it has only brought Hamas to power.

So why did I willingly return to D.C., to attend AIPAC’s political leadership training seminar this past winter break? Because the U.S. and Israel, in spite of justified criticisms about their commitment to democracy in light of their respective foreign and domestic policies, do share one important thing. They support Israel’s right to exist. And until people like Iran’s president cease calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” this right cannot be taken for granted. A favorite AIPAC talking point is that the U.S. was the first country to recognize Israel, merely 11 minutes after the historic declaration of independence in 1948. As it turns out, most Americans are “pro-Israel”—perhaps not in the AIPAC sense, but definitely in the more balanced sense through unequivocally recognizing the existential threat necessitating a Jewish state in Israel.

The stir Mearsheimer and Walt caused reminds me of the story of Balaam’s donkey from the Bible. The book of Deuteronomy teaches us that “the Lord thy God turned the curse into a blessing unto thee, because the Lord thy God loved thee [Balaam].” By analogy, the myth that Jews rule the world is self-fulfilling as long as the world believes in it: If you shatter it, you have eliminated Israel’s influence. From that point of view, Walt and Mearsheimer are doing the Israel lobby a good service.