Are we Jews too sensitive to what non-Jews say about us? The haggadah, which we just read on seder night, hints at the answer. The telling of the story of our enslavement in Egypt begins, "The Egyptians [spoke] evil about us" (usually mistranslated as "the Egyptians did evil to us"), followed by Pharaoh's exhortation to the Egyptians to deal cleverly with the Jews, lest they grow too numerous and betray Egypt by joining forces with its enemies.
The haggadah hints that Jews ignore the way they are spoken about at their own peril. Actions too often follow words.
For that reason, the recently published paper, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," by the dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Stephen Walt, and University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer deserves to be taken seriously. The authors claim that a powerful pro-Israel lobby has, for decades, subverted American interests in favor of those of Israel, a nation that can lay no strategic or moral claim to the massive support it receives from the United States.
Walt and Mearsheimer's core concept of an Israel lobby proves hopeless as an analytical tool. In their telling, this amorphous lobby includes those who disagree on every aspect of American and Israeli policy: The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal editorial pages; the Brookings Institute and the American Enterprise Institute; Ehud Barak's leading supporter, billionaire toymaker Haim Saban; and neo-conservative supporters of Binyamin Netanyahu. In short, everyone who does not call for Israel's dismantling.
(Though Walt and Mearsheimer offer the usual pro forma assurance that they, too, do not question Israel's right to exist, they offer an Elysian vision of a world without Israel and use fabricated quotes to portray Israel's birth as an instance of ethnic cleansing. They mention no threat to America, other than those caused by Israel's existence -- neither a nuclear Iran nor Islamic fanaticism. The Nixon administration's airlift of arms during the 1973 war, when Israel's existence hung in the balance, is cited as an example of the Israel lobby's undue influence.)
As former Jerusalem Post Editor Bret Stephens noted in The Wall Street Journal, the alleged conspiracy includes, or has infected, nearly all Americans -- 66 percent of Americans who follow foreign affairs support Israel, as opposed to 9 percent who are more sympathetic to the Palestinians. The Walt/Mearsheimer thesis sounds like nothing so much as the 1950s sci-fi classic, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
Curiously, the one group immune to the machinations of the lobby is American Jews. The war in Iraq is the coup de grace in Walt/Mearsheimer's indictment of the lobby's kidnapping of American foreign policy on behalf of Israel. Yet American Jews opposed the war in higher percentages than any other group.
Their best evidence of an all-powerful Israel lobby consists of the self-serving claims of past and present AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) officials who consistently overrate their own efforts and downplay those factors that predispose Americans to support a strong Israel.
However weak as an analytical tool, the Israel lobby is a potent rhetorical device. Walt and Mearsheimer accuse supporters of Israel of attempting to squelch debate on American policy toward Israel, but it is they who seek to suppress debate. They prefer to dismiss such renowned scholars as Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami as members of the lobby, than to engage their arguments, and to portray President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (not to mention former President Bill Clinton) as helpless dupes of the lobby, than to discuss their policy choices.
In particular, Walt and Mearsheimer seek to secure the predominance of anti-Israel views on university campuses, which they note, in a rather large understatement, remain the last bastion into which the tentacles of the lobby have not reached. Indeed, if there were an Israel lobby, and labeling all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic were its tactic, the steady drumbeat of criticism of Israel on elite campuses and in the elite press would be the clearest proof of its inefficacy.
As an example of the lobby's attempt to intimidate critics, the authors cite Daniel Pipes's Campus Watch project, which publicizes the classroom statements of anti-Israel professors. They do not explain, however, why the classroom statements of professors should be any more immune from scrutiny and criticism than those contained in their published works.
Walt and Mearsheimer cite the documentary, "Columbia Unbecoming," exposing the biases of Columbia University's department of Middle East and Asian languages and cultures (MEALAC), as a particularly egregious example of attempted intimidation. They rely on the "findings" of an internal Columbia University committee to exonerate MEALAC.
But they fail to note that the committee was hand-picked to whitewash the charges: Two of its five members had signed a petition calling on Columbia University to divest from all companies connected to the Israeli military, and the university vice president to whom the committee reported was one of the petition's initiators. A third committee member served as the thesis adviser of one of the professors most criticized by the documentary.
Walt and Mearsheimer complain of a handful of university Israel studies departments, chiefly financed by Jewish philanthropists, but ignore entirely the far more numerous and larger Middle East studies departments dominated by pro-Arab professors and supported by Saudi and other Arab oil money.
By raising the spectre of an Israel lobby, Walt and Mearsheimer have laid a trap for the American Jewish community: The more the Jews protest, the more they "prove" the existence of a lobby. And we have fallen into the trap. With the exception of James Taranto of the online Opinion Journal, the most effective responses to Walt and Mearsheimer have all come from prominent American Jews: Alan Dershowitz, Ruth Wisse, Elliot Cohen, Martin Peretz, Dennis Ross, Bret Stephens, Martin Kramer, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), CAMERA and the New York Sun (a remake of the old Forward).
The Jewish community has repeated the same mistake that it made over "The Passion of the Christ," when instead of letting Christian New Testament scholars carry the ball, the Anti-Defamation League took the lead in attacking Mel Gibson's film. Non-Jewish academics should have been allowed to take the lead in exposing the rot at the heart of the Walt/Mearsheimer paper.
But the paper cannot be ignored. It provides a potent alert to what Jewish students face on America's elite campuses, and the poisons being fed the next generation of American leaders.
Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, where this work originally appeared.