Adam Kirsch has written a fantastic piece arguing that Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby, though universally rejected, has nonetheless had a significant impact on political discourse. By “fantastic” I mean that his account of the book’s thesis, its reception, and its impact, appears to be the products of his imagination. Here’s why I think so.
1. The Invented Thesis
Kirsch formulates the central thesis of the book as follows
[An] all-powerful “Israel lobby” had hijacked American foreign policy using illegitimate means, and…a small but committed group of American Jews was steering the country into disaster to satisfy their parochial interests
This misrepresents the book on several counts, as Stephen Walt has pointed out already here. According to the book, the Israel Lobby is not composed entirely, or even mainly, of a “small but committed group of American Jews,” but rather of a broad coalition of organizations and interests. Moreover, the Lobby’s means are expressly stated by the authors to be legitimate, and it is not considered to be all-powerful, though it is indeed powerful.
But in the fantasy that Kirsch concocts, the Israel Lobby is not composed of a broad spectrum of Jewish and gentile Israel supporters, but rather is a Jewish lobby, despite the pains that the authors take to distance themselves from that pernicious reading. So gripped is Kirsch in the throes of an imagined anti-Semitic fantasy that he considers the cover of the book, the American flag rendered in the blue and white of the Israeli flag – as “an unmistakable visual shorthand for Jewish domination.” Really! And not being able to associate the book’s thesis with anti-Semitism, what he can do is to associate it with the comment sections of anti-Semitic websites.Really!
2. The Invented Reception History
In order to make his case that the thesis of this discredited book has continued to have pernicious influence, Kirsch has to invent a reception history of the book that once again is a fantasy, albeit with some elements of truth (George Washington did have to sleep somewhere, didn’t he?)
To look back on The Israel Lobby’s reception today is to see a remarkable unanimity of rejection, from the New York Times (“mostly wrong … dangerously misleading”) and Foreign Affairs (“written in haste, the book will be repented at leisure”) to The Nation (“serious methodological deficiencies … a mess”).
Unanimity of rejection? Here, from a fairly balanced Wikipedia article, are names of those American readers who praised the book: Former Ambassador Edward Peck, Tony Judt, Juan Cole, terrorist expert Michael Scheur, and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Others gave it a mixed review, such as Daniel Levy, Christopher Hitchens (who wrote that the original Harvard paper “contains much that is true and a little that is original”) Joseph Massad, Michelle Goldberg, Michael Massing. Some that rejected the thesis didn’t think it went far enough. Others, on the left, thought that the Israel Lobby thesis took too much of the blame off the US government. .
And now let’s look at the sources to which Kirsch refers, and some of his cherry-picking from their reviews. He doesn’t provide links and for good reasons. In the Times review, Leslie Gelb, a life-long supporter of Israel, writes that “Most unbiased students of the matter would probably agree that the lobby is the single most influential force on American policy toward Israel.” Walter Russell Mead, writing in Foreign Affairs, does not deny the existence of a lobby but attributes the US’s support of Israel to much a deeper American identification with Israel, an identification that has been changing since 1967 and could indeed change further (See here: “A Palestinian and Arab leadership more sensitive to the values and political priorities of the American political culture could develop new and more effective tactics designed to weaken, rather than strengthen, American support for the Jewish state”. This, I believe, is already happening) And Daniel Lazare’s critical piece in the Nation includes this statement: “So, yes, there is a pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Yes, it is powerful. And yes, critics like Mearsheimer and Walt are hardly out of bounds in asking if the lobby, which they go to great pains to demonstrate is composed of both Jews and gentiles, is truly serving what the authors consider to be the American national interest.” Hardly a unanimous rejection of the sort Kirsch implies
What Kirsch doesn’t say is that although the criticisms of the book were varied and came from different quarters, almost all of them – including the three reviews cited above -- rejected outright insinuations of anti-Semitism Of course, all of them rejected the imagined thesis put forward by Kirsch himself (see above) – but then, again, so do Walt and Mearsheimer.
And this brings us to the biggest fantasy of the rezeptionsgeschichte invented by Kirsch
There was also a general recognition that in their insinuations about secret Jewish power, Mearsheimer and Walt—professors at the University of Chicago and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, respectively—had given a respectable imprimatur to old and sinister anti-Semitic tropes.
Kirsch’s source for the “general recognition”? None. Oh, he cites Michael Gerson, whom he describes as an evangelical conservative Christian. Why didn’t he cite Alan Dershowitz or Elliot Cohen? That would show that this canard was representative of a broad spectrum of views on Israel, running the entire gamut from Zionist liberal hawk to Zionist neocon!
3. The Invention of the “Influence of the Bad Idea.”
Long before Walt and Mearsheimer wrote their book, there was a powerful lobby in Washington called AIPAC that prided itself on being a powerful lobby in Washington. That lobby has been most successful in the Congress. Whether the Congress matters in foreign policy or not, it is at least arguable that the standing ovations for Netanyahu were due in large member to the constant work of AIPAC. Tom Friedman may be upset about that success, but what’s wrong with his calling attention to it? Shouldn’t AIPAC be justly proud of its success?
In his op-ed, cited as an influence of Walt and Mearsheimer’s discredited thesis, Friedman used the term the “Israel Lobby” in its least controversial form, as referring to the influence, mostly of AIPAC, on the Congress. If there was any influence in Walt and Mearsheimer’s book on Friedman, it was terminological.
That, of course, is nothing to sneer at. Many of Walt and Mearsheimer’s sharpest critics nonetheless praised the two for opening up the conversation of the Israel Lobby, while offering other causal factors besides domestic politics and the influence of the Lobby for the overwhelmingly pro-Israel position in Washington and the country. The Israel Lobby has had a role in getting the Zionist narrative, liberal and conservative, accepted among mainstream Americans, but there are many more important factors, to my mind. For example, without the Holocaust, it would have been impossible to get most Americans – and for that matter, American Jews – to support the establishment of the State of Israel, and Zionism would have remained a Utopian scheme, or at least one to be postponed. As mentioned above, Walter Russell Mead suggests that support for Israel is widespread in the US, but that can change, and indeed, in many cases, it has changed (many evangelicals are now more committed Zionists, and don’t need the reinforcement of AIPAC; liberals are less supportive of Israel’s policies than they were thirty years ago) With the continuing occupation of Palestinian lands, the unresolved issue of the Palestinian refugees, the growing awareness of the flaws of Israeli democracy (and the decline of that democracy), the coming-to-age of Palestinian-Americans who can articulate their narrative (the Zionists had a big head start) – together with the drop in terrorism, etc., etc. – the vaunted American identification with Israel, though, broad, may show itself to be shallow. Nobody will support the death or destruction of innocent Israelis, or innocent Palestinians, who have died in far greater number -- but that leaves a wide range of political options open.