The Israel lobby's role in American politics

Article by Stephen Walt.


While I was away, a friend sent me a link to an article from the online magazine Tablet, and asked me what I thought about it. The piece is by Adam Kirsch, and it’s basically a critical summary of the impact of my book (with John Mearsheimer) on the Israel lobby.   Kirsch was clearly moved to write the piece by Robert Kaplan’s laudatory profile of John in the Atlantic Monthly, which undoubtedly drove Kirsch and a number of our other critics crazy.

So what do I think?  On the one hand, I could be somewhat gratified by the piece, insofar as he describes the book as an “intellectual landmark, one of those rare books that succeed in altering the intellectual climate.”  But on the other hand, Kirsch clearly thinks we’ve altered that climate for the worse, and his discussion of our work is filled with falsehoods.   Like most of our other critics, Kirsch seems unable to address what we actually wrote.  So he invents a straw man version of our argument — in some cases accusing us of believing the exact opposite of what we actually said — and proceeds to lambaste it instead.

Consider his very first paragraph, which purports to offer a summary of our argument (my emphasis):

“What [The Israel Lobby] did not do, to judge by the reviews, was convince anyone of its central argument, that an all-powerful “Israel lobby” had hijacked American foreign policy using illegitimate means…”

There are two problems here. First, “to judge by the reviews” doesn’t tell you much about the book’s merits (or its flaws), insofar as almost all of the mainstream reviewers in the United States were acknowledged Zionists who were bound to be hostile to our point of view. Not surprisingly, most reviews outside the U.S. — including several in Israel itself — were favorable.

Second, and more importantly, Kirsch’s summary of our argument bears little or no resemblance to what we actually wrote. Indeed, he managed to pack three separate falsehoods into a single sentence, which is no small achievement. To wit:

1. He claims we said the lobby was “all-powerful.” In fact, we wrote “we do not believe the lobby is all-powerful, or that it controls important institutions in the United States. As we will discuss in several subsequent chapters, there are a number of cases where the lobby did not get its way.” (TIL, p. 14). We repeated this statement elsewhere in the book, in public presentations, and in several subsequent articles. So how did Kirsch manage to miss this?

2. He claims we argued that the lobby had “hijacked” U.S. foreign policy “using illegitimate means.” In fact, we wrote “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.” We also emphasized that “it is perfectly legitimate for any American to have a significant attachment to a foreign country” (TIL, p. 13). And we repeated similar statements throughout the book. Either Kirsch didn’t bother to read it, or he is just inventing arguments that we did not make so that he has something to criticize.

3. Kirsch alleges that “in our insinuations about secret Jewish power, Mearsheimer and Walt…had given a respectable imprimatur to old and sinister anti-Semitic tropes. ” Wrong again. We have a lengthy section denouncing traditional anti-Semitism, and we never–repeat never–said one word or offered “insinuations” about “secret” Jewish power. On the contrary, we repeatedly emphasized that the lobby’s activities were above-board and out in the open, like those of other prominent interest groups. We are both familiar with the long and sordid history of anti-Semitism, and we devoted a lengthy section of our introduction to a discussion of these various “anti-Semitic tropes” and our explicit rejection of them, emphasizing that they help explain why it is hard to even talk about this issue. Moreover, when discussing the neoconservative movement, we wrote “what may seem to some like a shadowy conspiracy (or even a “right wing cabal”) is anything but. On the contrary.Tthe various think tanks, committees, foundations, and publications that have nurtured the neoconservative movement operate much as other policy networks do. Far from shunning publicity or engaging in hidden plots, these groups actively court publicity for the explicit purpose of shaping public and elite opinion and moving U.S. foreign policy in the directions they favor.” (TIL, p. 131).

For that matter, we repeatedly emphasized that the term “Jewish lobby” was an inappropriate label, because many Jews do not support the lobby’s agenda and because some key members of the lobby were not Jewish (most notably the so-called Christian Zionists). For this reason, we wrote “it is the specific political agenda that defines the lobby, not the religious or ethnic identity of those pushing it” (TIL, p. 115).

4. Lastly, Kirsch suggests that our book advocated “cutting Israel adrift,” and implies that we believe “America’s interests and problems in the Islamic world will be resolved…if and when a Palestinian state is created.” This isn’t even close to what we wrote. We repeatedly said that we supported Israel’s existence, and that we believed the United States should come to its aid if its survival were in jeopardy.” We repeatedly say the U.S. should have a “normal” relationship with Israel, akin to our relations with other democracies. How is this “cutting Israel adrift?” And we made it clear that our recommended policy approach “will not eliminate all the problems currently facing the United States in the Middle East…Israeli-Palestinian peace is not a wonder drug that will solve all the region’s problems: it will by itself neither eliminate anti-Semitism in the region nor lead Arab elites to tackle the other problems that afflict their societies with new energy and commitment” (TIL, p. 348). Once again, Kirsch is either writing about a book he hasn’t read, or engaging in willful distortion.

In short, Kirsch’s supposed summary of our core argument, as well as his tortured effort to interpret the book’s cover as anti-Semitic, is demonstrably false. It is not even a caricature of what we actually wrote; it is a wholly fictitious construction of his own. And the same could be said for virtually all of the reviews that he cites as “evidence” of our supposed errors and alleged bigotry. As I’ve noted before, our critics are forced to misrepresent our book because they cannot deal with the arguments that we actually made. The only way for them to challenge us is to distort or misrepresent what we said, or to pretend we said the exact opposite. And it is surely no accident that these distortions are always slanted to portray us falsely as anti-Semites, which has become the all-purpose way for hardline defenders of Israel to respond to those with different views.

Fortunately, there is a more parsimonious explanation for why our book may have helped open up public discourse on these issues. Not by legitimizing anti-Semitism, of course, which would be a deplorable development that both Mearsheimer and I would condemn in the strongest terms. Rather, our book may have helped open up a more fruitful debate on U.S. Middle East policy, and especially on the U.S.-Israel “special relationship,” for the simple reason that we were pointing out obvious truths that many knowledgeable people already recognized. We may have succeeded because there was overwhelming evidence of the lobby’s impact — including testimony from a wide range of politicians — evidence that no amount of distortion or slander could conceal. Eyes have also been opened by unfortunate events like the Lebanon War of 2006, the Gaza War of 2008-2009, and the Obama administration’s failed attempts to advance a two-state solution, all of which cast a bright light on the lobby’s clout in Washington. And it surely didn’t hurt that our critics reacted in precisely the way we described in our book, resorting to misrepresentation and smear tactics instead of dealing with our arguments and evidence in a rational and fair-minded fashion.

If Kirsch is correct that we are “winning,” in short, maybe it’s because we paid close attention to facts and logic and did not attack our opponents with inaccurate smears or attempts at character assassination. Maybe we’re “winning” because our core argument was correct: the various groups that make up the “Israel lobby” have been mistakenly advocating policies that were in fact harmful to the United States and to Israel itself, and more and more people have begun to figure this out.

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