March 31, 2006

You’re not allowed to say that about Israel

After a long spell of deep interest in Middle Eastern politics, I have grown weary of even thinking about the region, let alone discussing it with the ardent Zionists with whom I used to love arguing. Perhaps best exemplifying this feeling of futility is the irrational outrage over John Mearsheimer’s recent paper (co-authored with Stephen Walt) on American-Israeli relations. The paper, titled “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” seeks to answer a simple, important, and too often unasked question: Why does the U.S. give so much to Israel (we give 3 billion annually in direct assistance, as well as providing many other perks)? The authors dismiss the frequently cited strategic and moral arguments for the U.S.’s seemingly unequivocal support of Israel. Then they theorize that an informal lobby of pro-Israeli Americans who wield enormous political and ideological power have distorted the political system to ensure Israel gets U.S. support.

It is not surprising that such a thesis has generated a lot of criticism, but what is surprising is the level to which this criticism has utterly ignored the weaknesses of their claim (which I will not be evaluating here). It has instead relied almost exclusively on smearing the authors by accusing them of anti-Semitism and likening them to white supremacists (editorials in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Sun are the most prominent examples of these tactics; for a more exhaustive list; visit my blog). The best part, though, is that these windbags don’t even seem to have read the paper. This is obvious because the arguments made by these authors agree with segments of the claims made in the paper. Mearsheimer and Walt discuss the extent to which many try to portray Israel as a shining democracy surrounded by vicious Arab states that will not stop fighting until Israel is wiped off the map. Mearsheimer and Walt claim that the most powerful weapon used against just and unjust critics of Israel is to conflate criticism of Israel with a prejudice against the Jewish race and religion (which really isn’t even logical). And this is precisely what happened to them. They claim that if you criticize American support of Israel you are likely to get accused of anti-Semitism, and within weeks of publishing their paper, many were likening it to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Ouch.

Of course the problem that these critics have with the paper is not its thesis (god knows they probably didn’t even make it that far). Their problem was that the topic was even being brought up. So they did what anyone does when they don’t want something to be rationally discussed—they resorted to smearing the reputation and character of honest scholars.

But this tactic does nothing but promote self-censorship of intellectuals looking not to be labeled “anti-Semitic.” While that might be the aim of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Sun, censorship of any sort is never good, especially on a matter so critical to U.S. fiscal and foreign policy. Ironically, this is something that many who are now so irrationally critical of Mearsheimer and Walt once agreed with when many were defending the publication of blasphemous anti-Muslim cartoons. But for so many, ideological consistency is not important when it comes to one of their pet issues.

It is the fear of provoking such an irrational response from so many that has reduced the debate on Israel into nothing but radical opinions on the extremes. I mean, honestly, why enter the debate if you have any opinions divergent from the extremes if it is just going to degenerate into the futile shouting match that so many are trying to coax Mearsheimer and Walt to take part in (and which they have smartly declined to join)?

The discussion Israel and the Middle East as a whole makes for a fascinating and endlessly complex topic, but it has always been a topic consumed with far too much passion and not nearly enough reason and logic. This is likely to be one of the last columns I waste on Israel, at least until it becomes an issue where ideas and debate are useful, but that is likely to be a long time.