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:: By Mary Ruth Yoe

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Chicago Journal ::


The “Israel Lobby” debate

On the title page of Working Paper No. RWP06-011—cowritten by Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, outgoing academic dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University—is the following authors’ note: “As academic institutions, Harvard University and the University of Chicago do not take positions on the scholarship of individual faculty, and this article should not be interpreted or portrayed as representing the official position of either institution.”

The article, its authors knew, would prove controversial. Posted on the Kennedy School’s Web site in mid-March, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy”—along with an abridged version published in the March 23 London Review of Books—has become the spring’s most talked-about academic paper.

International-relations theorists Mearsheimer and Walt argue that “U.S. national interest should be the primary object of American policy.” Yet in recent decades “the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy has been its relationship with Israel,” a focus that “has jeopardized” U.S. security and is explained by “the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby,” their shorthand for a “loose coalition” of individuals and organizations who “actively work to shape U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction.” The lobby’s power, they charge, suppresses full discussion of the ramifications of U.S.–Israel policy.

Through early May (when the Magazine went to press), “The Israel Lobby” almost daily made headlines, op-ed pages, and blogs around the world. Critics charged anti-Semitism, shoddy scholarship, or both. Accepting the Kennedy School’s invitation to Harvard faculty to post responses online, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz titled his reply “Debunking the Newest—and Oldest—Jewish Conspiracy.” Others dismissed the charges of anti-Semitism but argued that the professors had painted in too-large strokes, underrating, for example, the role oil plays in Middle East policy. Some reviewers, reported the April 12 New York Times, found the lobby’s definition so broad as to be meaningless and the term itself at odds with the far-from-monolithic coalition it is used to describe.

In Michelle Goldberg argued that its flaws hid its “valuable” aspects: “Walt and Mearsheimer are correct, after all, in arguing that discussion about Israel is hugely circumscribed in mainstream American media and politics.” Meanwhile, in Ha’aretz Daniel Levy, a policy analyst in Ehud Barak’s government, noted that while the paper “lacks finesse and nuance when it looks at the alphabet soup of the world of American-Jewish organizations,” it “should serve as a wake-up call on both sides of the ocean.” And Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell—who told NPR the piece has flaws and important “blinding flashes of the obvious”—assigned it to his students at George Washington University and the College of William & Mary. The discussion seems poised to continue.